cover image Eighth Army: The Triumphant Desert Army That Held the Axis at Bay from North Africa to the Alps, 1939-45

Eighth Army: The Triumphant Desert Army That Held the Axis at Bay from North Africa to the Alps, 1939-45

Robin Neillands, Author Overlook Press $32.5 (388p) ISBN 978-1-58567-537-1

Military historian Neillands (The Bomber War) celebrates the British Eighth Army's momentous defeat of Rommel at El Alamein--one of the first Allied successes against the Germans--in this thorough, informative, if over-indulgent account of its campaigns in North Africa and Italy. Neillands is incisive in his critique of the Eighth's inferior weapons, inept tactics and incompetent leadership during its early defeats by Rommel, but his judgment falters once Montgomery, whom he considers a masterful general, takes command. He chalks up the El Alamein turn-around to Monty's talents and the common soldiers' grit; however, his detailed account of the struggle really depicts a clumsy battle of attrition that the British won by virtue of their colossal material superiority, including a six-to-one advantage in tanks. Later triumphs in Italy likewise hinged on""putting more weight into the attack: more guns, more men, more tanks, more shells, more aircraft."" Somewhat perversely, Neillands spins Eighth Army's use of""a sledgehammer to crack a nut"" (and avoidance of daring maneuver) as a kind of strategic sophistication. Drawing on an oversupply of reminiscences by Eighth Army vets, Neillands keeps the focus of his detailed campaign narratives on the heroic exploits of small units and individual soldiers. Unfortunately, he can't quite dispel the impression that Eighth Army--Monty included--did not fight brilliantly, relying instead on sheer numbers and firepower (especially from the Allied air forces, whose role he understates) to grind down the more skillful but increasingly outnumbered and outgunned Germans. Neillands's treatment is well researched and lucidly written, but his sentimental emphasis on fighting spirit over brute force somewhat distorts the nature of the Allied victory. 30 b&w photos, 4 maps.